On the Contemporariness of Dante’s Inferno

This was recovered from some of my old notebooks when I was still a lousy student of literature in the University of the Philippines Visayas.

1. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is often compared to contemporary human sufferings and social ills as embodied by intensifying inequality, exploitation, wars of aggression, economic crisis, political repression, and socio-political chaos. This comes as no surprise. The Inferno, after all, is about those who are excluded from the angelic community by virtue of their sins against the Roman Catholic Church, against the characters who cannot occupy the space reserved for those who people the two other books of Dante’s, The Divine Comedy: the Paradiso and Purgatorio.

2. Inferno begins with Dante entering the outskirts of Hell or the Ante-Inferno where the souls of those who in life became fence sitters in the epic struggle between good and evil are bitten by hornets and attacked by worms as they vainly run against a blank banner. In the lower depths of hell are all the other sinners and evil doers who are punished according to the weight of their wrongdoing. The litany of sins and corresponding punishments goes on to become more gruesome as Dante goes deeper and deeper in hell.

Those who are lustful are swirled in a terrible storm where they commit sexual intercourse forever without the sexual satisfaction. The gluttonous are made to lie in mud and are rained with filth and excrement. The violent are boiled in a river of blood for eternity. The seducers are lashed with whips. The flatterers are dipped in a river of human feces. Those who accept bribes are torn apart by demons. Thieves are placed in a pit of vipers. Falsifiers are infected with diseases. And in the lowest and coldest depths are the betrayers who are subjected to freezing temperatures.

3. But unlike the people supposed to be found in Dante’s hell, not all who are in the inferno of the real world are sinful. Many are in fact innocent. Many are simply hapless victims of the cruel machinations of man-made institutions and natural catastrophes. Those who are abducted by government forces, for example, do not disappear because of any wrongdoing but because of their vocal opposition to the wrongdoings of the government itself. Those who die of natural disasters do not do so because of the sins they’ve committed in their past or present lives. They are simply there when an Earthquake, typhoon, or whatever catastrophic phenomenon strikes.

4. On the other hand, it would seem that even Dante’s own inferno do not only accept sinners. Minos, it seems, also marks those who we would consider innocent from the contemporary point of view. The First Circle of Dante’s inferno, for instance, houses ancient writers and great thinkers who died without being converted to Christianity. Of course, it would be foolhardy to expect Aristotle or Virgil to praise Christ when Jesus has yet to be born during their times. Dante also has a penchant for placing his enemies, like Filippo Argenti for example, in his literary hell.

5. The contemporary quality of Dante’s Inferno can be discerned in the way it is referenced not only in religious or popular cultural discourses but also in artistic literary endeavors and even political causes. The late Russian novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, renowned for his three-volume Gulag Archipelago about life in the labor camps of the former Soviet Union, combines both a literary and political bent in a novel directly alluding to Dante’s Inferno.

Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle is a reference to the first circle of Dante’s hell where the pagan philosophers and writer who did not know Christ were kept. In his novel, Solzhenitsyn compared the situation of arrested technicians and academics in the former Soviet Union to the inhabitants of Dante’s first circle.

Unlike the usual prisoner who is sent to labor camps in the Siberian wilderness, these technicians and academics are made to work on state technical projects, are adequately fed, and enjoy relatively good working conditions. They are relatively better off than the regular prisoner, just like the inhabitants of the first circle who are, despite staying in hell, still more privileged than those trapped in the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno.

6. The geographical division of the world in the last Century into the First, Second, and Third Worlds seems to imitate the religious division of the afterlife as envisioned by Christian discourse and as graphically expounded by Dante into paradise, purgatory, and hell. The First World, of course, must be heaven as the few countries found in this category enjoy economic prosperity and cultural refinement. The world’s billionaires increased number from 793 to 1,011 according to the latest list of billionaires published by Forbes. Of this number, 403 come from the United States. The Second World, those countries found in between the extremes of wealth and poverty, must be purgatory while the Third World cannot be anything else but hell.

Indeed, life in the Third World is hell with the extent of poverty and inequality experienced by the peoples of this part of the world. One only has to look at the Philippines where more than 59 million Filipinos live on less than $2 a day. This is why 10 million Filipinos work outside of the country, why 4,000 Filipinos still leave the country daily to work abroad. And lest we forget, the Filipino migrant workers are but a fraction of more than 200 million migrant workers from the Third World working in the more affluent countries to support their families.

But then again, is it not also that certain portions of the so-called First World and the Second World are also infernos to begin with? Urban ghettos and slum areas are not exclusive to countries from the Third World. Life in the First World is not all that perfect as Hollywood and MTV projects. The experience of Filipino compatriots pursuing the American dream abroad points to the enduring problem of second-class citizenship. Far from being representatives of hell, purgatory, and paradise, it would seem more appropriate to designate the Third, Second, and First Worlds as instances of the different circles of hell as envisioned by Dante.

7. Closer to home, this division among nations between those in the center of the global capitalist system and those in the peripheries is also reproduced in the stratification of the nation’s peoples into those who benefit from the status quo and those who do not. If the more advanced industrialized capitalist nations of the First World exploit those in Third World, then the peoples in the Philippines also experience the same dynamic of the domination of the majority by a few ruling classes. This reality replicates the literary depiction of hell by Dante in terms of suffering.

The peasant class, composing 75 to 80 percent of the population, occupies the bottom of the social pyramid. They might as well occupy the lowest ring of Dante’s inferno with the extent of their sufferings from landlessness, landlord oppression, bogus government agrarian reform programs, and militarization. The working class, with 10 to 15 percent of the population, comes next. Most cannot even avail of a living wage which will allow them to sustain their families. Many do not earn the minimum wage. Workers in export processing zones catering to foreign multinationals are not allowed to organize unions or hold strikes and pickets to advance their rights and welfare.

The professional and intellectual classes, composing the next 8 percent of the population, are not given opportunities in the country and are the first to go abroad for greener pastures. While a negligible local small and medium-scale industrial class cannot compete with large foreign businesses and compradors that have links with transnational corporations. These classes of Philippine society can be said to suffer in the different rings of Dante’s hell while the remaining one percent, the landlords, compradors, and traditional politicians that have linkages with foreign powers are enjoying paradise.

Life for the lower classes is akin to the sinners of Dante’s Inferno while the life of the landlords, bureaucrats, and compradors can be likened to the inhabitants in Paradiso. The only irony is that in the Philippines those in hell are not necessarily sinful while those in heaven are not necessarily angelic. The continuing reality of oppression and exploitation confront us with one thread that unites human societies from the distant past to the present. These very realities convey to us the reality of the dispossessed as the occupants of the real hell of human history.



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